Americans Consumed Less Energy In 2012, And Pumped Out Less Carbon Dioxide To Do It

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Originally published on ClimateProgress
by Ryan Koronowski

co2 emissions

The United States emitted less carbon dioxide through energy consumption in 2012, and while this is not the whole picture of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it is a welcome sign.

On Monday, the Energy Information Administration released a report showing that the carbon dioxide pollution we emit as we use energy dropped 3.8 percent in 2012. These emissions dropped from a high of 6,023 million metric tons in 2007 through a gradual drop to 5,280 million metric tons in 2012. 2011′s levels were at 5,498 million metric tons, meaning last year the country pumped out 218 million fewer metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Though U.S. CO2 emissions in 2012 amounted to 368,000 pounds of pollution per second, this is the lowest level since 1994:

US co2 emissions

The drop in 2009 was largely due to the contraction in the U.S. economy during the Great Recession, yet the falling carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 occurred while GDP rose 2.8 percent. Energy consumption fell by 2.8 percent.

The main reason for this is that American energy intensity dropped — energy use per dollar of GDP fell 6.5 percent. The economy was able to do more with less energy, which has been a long-term trend ever since an inefficient high in 1970. Wasting energy is bad for everyone except the people who sell fuel and electricity (and sometimes even they prefer to sell less).

The United States also has continued a decade-long trend of generating more electricity from natural gas and less from coal. Coal emits more CO2 when it is burned than natural gas does. Renewable energy became a larger element of the energy portfolio in 2012. So not only did many consumers use less energy to go about their lives, the energy they used also required less carbon dioxide to be burned.

Finally, 2012 had a warmer winter and therefore required less energy to heat homes and businesses. Americans also drove, on average, the same number of miles per day in 2012 as they did in 2011, but with more efficient vehicles continuing to enter the market, transportation sector emissions dropped 22 percent.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told the AP that the drop “is reason for cautious optimism that we’re already starting to move in the right direction, but this alone will not lead us toward the dramatic carbon reductions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.”

The report is careful to just refer to “energy-related carbon dioxide emissions” dropping — why not just say greenhouse gas emissions dropped, or carbon emissions fell in 2012?

The answer is we will not know if either of those things are true until April 2014. EIA used to release a full inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions but now leaves that job to the EPA.

So CO2 emitted from the production of energy — flaring natural gas wells, transporting oil, coal, and gas to market, for example — is not included in the EIA numbers. Neither is carbon dioxide emitted through biomass energy production, though the argument can be made that biomass such as ethanol and wood are not “emitted” in the same way as fossil fuels.

And this does not even begin to cover other greenhouse gases. Methane, nitrous oxide, and other super-potent greenhouse gases are not in this report. The full numbers of the rest of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will be released in April 2014 through the EPA’s Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.

US greenhouse gas emissions

The total greenhouse gas emissions mostly track with the EIA’s carbon dioxide energy-related numbers, and carbon dioxide makes up 84 percent of total American greenhouse gas emissions. But it is important to note that these numbers are not identical, and to avert the worst impacts of climate change, the U.S. will have to lower all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon pollution.

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21 thoughts on “Americans Consumed Less Energy In 2012, And Pumped Out Less Carbon Dioxide To Do It

  • And a round of applause for shale gas ands it’s role as the primary driver of this reduction. More efficient autos and light along with renewables get some credit too.

    • All I hear is the sound of one hand clapping.

      Shale gas was not the primary driver.

      • Well, make your case Bob

          • Ok, and Nat Gas 7000 HR turbines replacing 12,000 HR coal fired power means what?

            The energy intensity trend has been down since the 1970s but Emissions have just started to fall.

            Starting to connect the dots?

          • Dots were already connected.

            Natural gas has played a role in lowering CO2. However it has not been the “primary driver”.

            Furthermore, what CO2 reduction that NG has provided has been largely offset by greater methane leakage into the atmosphere.

            “While gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.8 percent in 2012, energy use per dollar of GDP fell by 5.1 percent. That change in energy intensity was a key driver, as the following chart indicates.”


          • Well, let’s do the math Bob. Approx 10% of US power has switched from coal to nat gas. And since the nat gas plants replacing the coal plants are roughly 40% more efficient, that is about a 4% reduction in fuel used to generate electricity. And since electricity is approx 50% of our energy consumption, looks like about a 2% reduction in our overall energy usage. Seems like about half of the reduction.

            Oh, if nat gas wells are leaking so much, there must be plenty of instances where these sites have exploded from the leaking natural gas. Oh wait…

          • Methane leaks occur mainly past the well. Our NG infrastructure leaks like crazy.

          • I think you are right Steeple. Methane is responsible for a large part of the CO2 reduction. However there are many explosions such as the one that killed five in West Virginia three months ago and many many more as seen here

            However if we talk GHG instead of CO2 methane is probably damaging our environment faster than coal was. The numbers are not in and probably won’t be in for another decade or three. By then it will be a moot item since renewable energy will have made fossil fuels a chapter in the history books taught to junior high kids about how stupid we were.

          • You’re probably right about the future. But I’d rather be warm, portable and stupid than the alternative in the present.

          • yep.

        • Love how you make a proclamation of a major point with no proof then when someone challenges it you demand they provide the proof, blatant hypocrisy.

          • lol, I always do that myself. Even in real life. But then I’m a lazy bastard given to hyperbole and hypocrisy. 🙂

          • See my proof above. Did you read the comments?

          • yes your proof came after both your initial comment without proof and your demand for someone to back up their claims, the fact that you have righted the hypocrisy is admirable but in no way changes my comment on it.

  • Sounds great, except that we’re not mentioning the fact that the emissions are being exported to China.

    • Do you have some numbers for this? The US does not import steel, cement, machine tools, ships, cars, aircraft and the like from China. It imports textiles, electronics, housewares, etc, which are far less energy-intensive. However, the shipping itself uses a lot of oil. There has undoubtedly been some increase in exported carbon emissions with a widening trade gap. It’ s up to you to show that this compensates the reductions in US domestic emissions to a significant, and not just a talking-point, extent.

      • It was a comment James, not a PhD dissertation. Nevertheless there’s a plethora of information out there. For instance:

        All you have to do in any Western country is look at the labels on 90% of consumer goods.

        The 1% of the 1% have destroyed the jobs of OECD workers and provide much of the coal to fuel the process.

        It can’t go on forever. American businesses are destroying their own customers. Henry Ford understood why that wasn’t a good idea and started the 20th Century boom time which is now being destroyed.

        • The one relevant number in your link was an estimate that US imports from China in 2008 included an imputed 400 mt of CO2. That’s about 7% of total US emissions that year. There is no estimate on the other side for US exports to China (about 1:4), which you have to do if you are working from consumption, not production. At a guess, that cuts the net Chinese share of US consumption emissions to about 5%. Chinese energy efficiency and value-added per kg has been going up, so it’s not likely this ratio has changed much over the period in spite of greater import volume – up 27% since 2008. (iPhone 5s are much more valuable than iPhone 3s, but use similar energy to make.) Total US emissions on a production basis have dropped 12.4% since 2008. It’s therefore impossible for growing Chinese imports to have represented more than a few % of this.

    • You were not clear on what you meant and when I read this a few hours ago I was going to ask for clarification. Now I think I have figured out what you mean. We have become a society that relies on China to produce most of our products and so they run the factories that emit toxins. I agree.

  • The first half of 2013 showed a reversal, with a year-on-year increase of 2.6%. (

    The ever-conservative EIA predicts that carbon emissions will rise steadily from now on. FWIW, I think they are too gloomy: their forecasts for solar installations are ridiculously low, and once businesses start taking energy-saving and climate change seriously, they will carry on doing so. But suppose you optimistically project a continuation of the downward trend from 2005 and dismiss the recent uptick as noise. The best the US can hope for is Obama’a softball target of a 17% reduction by 2020. This is still a long way from a reality-based energy transition. Even German targets are too low!

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